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284                          Egypt and Rome
abundance of corn for export to the hungry city of Rome, and
its trade and industries brought in a revenue in cash which far
exceeded the costs of administration and was a welcome asset
to the imperial exchequer.
A* an afterthought our Roman emperor might have mentioned
papyrus. For though papyrus was a negligible item in the econ-
omic life of the empire as compared with the corn and money
which Egypt provided, it remains true that the swamps of the
Delta supplied the whole ancient world from Britain to Meso-
potamia with the only writing material which was at once con-
venient, durable, and reasonably priced. The existence of such
a material must have contributed not a little to the relatively
high standard of literacy achieved under the Roman Empire,
and the cessation of the supply after the Arab conquest of
Egypt—papyrus was still imported into France under th^Mero-
vingian kings—must have increased the darkness of the Dark
Ages of Europe.
Now that the corn has been eaten and the money spent, the
papyri which the dry climate of Egypt has preserved remain
its great contribution to our knowledge of the Roman Empire.
Elsewhere we know only what the ancients thought it worth
while telling us, either by writing it in books, which have been
copied and re-copied and some of which have eventually come
down to us, or by inscribing it on stone. What the ancients
thought important we often find uninteresting; we could, for
instance, well spare the diffuse orations of Aelius Aristeides,
which were so passionately admired in antiquity, and the scores
of inscriptions which record the banal virtues of local worthies.
On the other haad, much that we should greatly like to know
they either took for granted, or considered beneath the dignity
of literature or epigraphic record. The papyri dug from the
rubbish-heaps of Egyptian towns and villages have been sub-
jected to no selective editorship. Many, perhaps most, of them
are, taken by themselves, extremely dull reading. But their